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home > races/results > usa: maine > picturesque beauty takes the sting out of a magnificent course

Picturesque beauty takes the sting out of a magnificent course
Why are participants waxing poetic in over the Mount Desert Island Marathon? Come up and find out as they celebrate a fourth successful year October 16th 2005.

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By Christopher Russell
Posted Tuesday, 11 October, 2005

Driven to poetry. That’s the only way one participant was able to describe his experience at the Mount Desert Island Marathon. The sheer magnificence of this stunningly scenic course left him at a loss for prose but brought forth a few stanzas of iambic pentameter. Here’s a snippet…

A rainbow, the mountains, the harbor's boats,
Will all help ease your pain,
Not to mention the heartfelt cheers
Of the great folks of Maine*

If you want to run a race that causes you to spontaneously break into pastoral verse, (and not those bad words you normally use to describe a hard marathon), pack up the family and drive northeast up route 95 on October 16th 2005. You will be exhilarated by the course. It’s been called the ‘most scenic marathon in the U.S.’ It’s a destination race. If you go, you want to stay the weekend and putter around Bar Harbor and the surrounding country. It’s worth it just for the boiled “lobstah”.

It is a 26.2 mile challenging hilly itinerary located amidst the beauty of Acadia National Park in Maine and organized by serious runners.

This is the fourth year for the Mount Desert Island Marathon (or ‘MDI’ as those in the know call it). In the beginning, the race organizers set out to create an event that would accomplish two things. First was to have a course that showcased the beauty of MDI and Acadia National Park. Second was to create a course that, (counter to the prevailing sentiment for flat fast qualifying marathons), was actually challenging. That’s it. Uber-scenic and challenging. It was a message that was simple, direct and powerful. “Come to our race, it’s beautiful and challenging.”

The question was whether this wonderful little marathon squirreled away off the coast of Maine would resonate with the running public. One early advertising campaign had the tag line of “One tough Mother”. Were there people who were willing to run a course that almost seemed to taunt prospective participants?

The answer so far has been a resounding “Yes!” The race is being capped at 1,000 runners this year and will probably sell out. The truth is that there are many runners looking for something different, something more than the standard flat course or big city party marathon. There are a bunch of runners who want to be surrounded by beauty and serenity and, by God, there still are people looking for a challenge.

The people who have run it rave about it

I’ve never seen such glowing praise from participants.

“MDI is a spectacular course. The scenery is fantastic, the route is challenging, and the volunteers are wonderful. From rocky cliffs over the ocean, to quiet harbors with sleepy fishing boats, to beautiful inland ponds and small towns, there's everything to love about the race. This is one marathon where the journey truly is its own reward. I plan to keep coming back year after year.”
T. G. St. Louis, MO

"For the marathon runner who makes breathtaking scenery a top priority for a marathon, MDI Marathon is where you want to be in 2004. Even a cloudy day and 40-degree temperatures could not disguise the peak fall foliage, the gorges, the beautiful homes, and a frequent view of the Atlantic Ocean. I ran Big Sur in 1997, and I'll admit I never thought I would run a race that could compare with the beautiful scenery of Big Sur. I was wrong!"
Jeff Newcorn, Buffalo Grove, Illinois

"The course being very hilly seemed to pass quickly as you gazed out into the ocean. This would definitely beat any city race for the spectacular views, I guess the hills were worth it. AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!"
Maria LeMieux, Lafayette, Colorado

On October 16th a thousand like-minded runners will set out from Bar Harbor, ME at 8:00 AM. If you sign up soon, you could be one of them.

Hills are your friends…

It’s hilly, but not so hilly that you would need a Sherpa guide and some rappelling rope; just normal Maine hills. It is enough to give you a challenge, which was part of the original intention of this course design.

The organizers believe that marathons should be challenging. This is what defined marathon running in the beginning and the MDI goes back to these roots; that pure essence of the marathon. In fact, many participants, including many Boston qualifiers, reported that their times were actually faster because the hills kept them from going out too fast and enabled them to finish stronger. Some decent hills break things up in a run; they let you use different parts of your muscles and keep you from getting stuck in a rut.

Speed is not the only issue here, (although MDI recorded the fasted men’s and women’s marathon times in the state of Maine in 2003); but beauty and challenge certainly are. When you run this race you will be immersed in beauty and when you finish this race you will know that you have been challenged.

Slow runners and walkers are more than welcome. Here’s a note from the last place marathoner in 2004…

"At 26 miles I could see the finish but I was in such bad shape I could not hobble over the sidewalk curbs, and they had handicap ramps! I seriously considered crawling the last 100 feet. A big factor in going all the way was knowing that Gary Allen (race director)said he would wait there, no matter how long it took me. He and my wife stretched a ribbon for me to shiver through into the waiting space blankets.

Every single painful step brought beautiful scenery. My first marathon at 62 years was full of every possible experience. This is the most beautiful place in the world for a marathon. Many many thanks for all the water and Gu left out for the straggler from Kent, Washington."
Dale Farrell, Kent, Washington

Why is the course so beautiful?

This part of Maine is postcard picturesque to begin with. The rocky Maine coastline is stark. Granite rocks and cliffs cascade out of forested mountains to do battle with the cold Atlantic. The area around Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park is the apex of the scenery. I used to vacation there with my family when I was a kid. It will saturate your senses with its natural splendor. You’ve got the ocean, the granite, the mountains and the forest all interplaying in an exquisite arboreal dance.

The race falls amid the peak fall foliage season when the mountains are painted with a riot of deciduous oranges, yellows and reds.

The robber barons of the 1890’s summered on MDI including the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors. Mansions were built, but most were consumed by an enormous fire in 1947 that burned half the island. One of the residual features is miles of carriage roads, well engineered by Rockefeller. The Park Service is in the midst of restoring these roads to their original state. This is truly a runner’s paradise and we should all thank the organizers of the marathon for bringing it to our attention.

Early conservationists lobbied for the preservation of the area culminating with the creation of what was to become Acadia National Park in 1919. It was the first national park east of the Mississippi. The MDI Marathon treats you to all of splendor of this national treasure

There is obvious pride in the course description as you read it on the web site. One thing that comes through all the race collateral is that these folks love their island home and they love their race. You have to figure that with that much love flowing, some is going to rub off on the runners.

The course is a point to point course with shuttles provided. It all begins in charming Bar Harbor, world class vacation destination. The first mile is mostly flat, and then it heads up between Champlain and Dorr Mountains. The early miles of the course will be just east of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast at 1,532 feet.

The course heads, in rolling downhills, south to the sea and along the coast. The runners are treated to peaceful, fishing boat filled coves, granite ocean cliffs and island views for the next few miles.

Runners will reach the half way point after passing through one of six scenic villages on the course and turn back into the island along Somes Sound. Apparently this fjord got lost on the way to Norway. It is the only true Fjord on the Eastern U.S. coast, and you get to spend the next 7-8 miles enjoying its views. It is lined with famous Maine pink granite and is truly a natural wonder.

The low elevation point of the course is around mile 16. The ‘tough’ section of the course starts around mile 19 and rolls to just before 25. Once you’ve made it this far, it’s down hill to the finish in the quaint fishing village of Southwest Harbor.

The ocean, the foliage, the granite, the ponds, and the mountains will give you so much pleasure that you won’t even notice the hills. (I’m trying to help you think positively) As one finisher said, “the journey is its own reward.”

Getting all the details right

In order to get away with hosting a race that is a throw back to the days when marathons were supposed to be hard, the organizers have to step up with professional attention to details. It’s a younger race, but the logistics are excellent. Past participants have commented on not having to wait in line for a porta-potty, and having enough water and sports drink on the course, even for the slower runners and walkers. There are hot showers at the finish and they will transport you and your bag to be waiting for you at the finish line and shuttle you back to Bar Harbor.

There is plenty of accommodation to be had in close proximity to the start in Bar Harbor. There is also great seafood and local shopping activities if you want to entice some support crew to come with you.

All the traditional marathon activities are here, including an expo and pre-race pasta dinner. One nice inspirational aspect is the return of Dick Beardsley as a participant and inspirational speaker. Boston devotees will remember Beardsley from the ‘duel in the sun’ against Alberto Salazar in 1982. This is just one more example of how this unique offering is attracting attention across the running community.

I have been in communication with these folks and they are on the ball. They have showed great initiative and zealousness for their event. The organizers are all serious runners and know what’s important to marathoners. It’s obviously a labor of love and a labor they take seriously. They encourage prospective participants to find what past runners have had to say. The love and energy for the event is paying off with popularity. The MDI Marathon has been growing and if you don’t sign up, you may miss out.

* Quotes courtesy of



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